Can Desegregation Alone Close the Achievement Gap?

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The campus is spectacular to behold. Quality has not been spared, from its modern classroom buildings with 800 computer terminals for 1,000 students, to its state-of-the-art athletic facilities--Olympic-size swimming pool, weight-training and gymnastics rooms, indoor track--complete with full-time coaches and trainers. An elite and well-endowed private college? No, this is Central High School, a predominantly minority school in the heart of downtown Kansas City, Mo.

This $34 million edifice is only a small part of the most lavish court-ordered desegregation plan in the nation. The 1986 plan was designed not only to integrate the Kansas City schools, but also to correct deficiencies in facilities and programs at formerly all-black schools. The plan has cost Kansas City and the state of Missouri $1.4 billion so far, and a similar plan in St. Louis has cost another $1.7 billion. Three-fourths of these funds, or over $2 billion, have come from the state.

In a 5-to-4 decision on June 12, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed lower-court decisions that had led to this unprecedented reconstruction of the Kansas City school system. (See Education Week, 6/21/95.) The purpose of this immense investment, according to the U.S. District Court that ordered it, was twofold: to improve integration in city schools by attracting white students from suburban school districts, and to correct educational deficiencies of city black students--evidenced in part by low achievement-test scores. The lower court expected that improved integration and programmatic enhancements would raise black test scores, thereby closing or at least reducing the black-white achievement gap.

The Supreme Court review stemmed from a 1993 district-court order that required continued state funding for two additional academic years on the grounds that achievement-test scores were still low--compared with national norms--and therefore that continued court jurisdiction and state funding were necessary. The district court's decision was affirmed by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit. For the first time anywhere, an appellate court said achievement-test scores and the black-white achievement gap could be used to decide when to end a court-ordered desegregation plan. The state of Missouri appealed these decisions to the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court reversed the lower courts and ruled that a comparison of Kansas City black test scores with national norms is not an acceptable standard for determining the effectiveness of a desegregation plan, even if the plan includes improvements to educational programs. The basis of the reversals was two longstanding remedial rules from earlier Supreme Court decisions, that "the nature of the violation determines the scope of the remedy" and that the remedy should "restore victims of discriminatory conduct to the position they would have occupied in the absence of such conduct."

On the basis of these principles, the majority concluded that the original violations documented by the district court--including lower achievement scores--did not justify the scope of the desegregation plan. First, the goal of attracting white students from the suburbs is inappropriate, since it presumes an interdistrict violation that had been specifically dismissed by the same district court in 1984. Second, the goal of eliminating the achievement gap between black and white students is likewise impermissible, since this gap was never shown to be wholly caused by segregated schools. While the Supreme Court did not challenge the principle of programmatic improvements to fix educational deficiencies from the prior segregated system, it said the standard for evaluating state compliance was whether the state had actually paid for these improvements, as ordered by the district court, and not their effects on student performance.

Many civil-rights groups have criticized the decision as a step backward, dismantling the principles of Brown v. Board of Education by ignoring the very conditions Brown sought to correct--the educational and social disadvantages of black students. I believe, to the contrary, that these critics have not only misinterpreted the legal doctrines of Brown but have incorrectly attributed the causes of the achievement gap--and the ability to close it--to school programs and policies.

No one disputes the fact that black achievement lags behind white achievement in Kansas City--as it does in virtually every school system in America. In both Kansas City and the nation, the gap is the equivalent of about one academic year; that is, the average black student in the 6th grade scores about the same as the average white student in grade 5. The problem with the Kansas City district- and appeals-court decisions is the assumption that this difference is attributable to the prior segregated school system and that desegregation and enhanced school programs will cure the problem.

We know from extensive social-science research that much of the black-white achievement gap is caused by general socioeconomic and family-lifestyle differences between various racial and ethnic groups. Although this conclusion was controversial when first propounded by the late James S. Coleman in his classic 1966 study, Equality of Educational Opportunity, it has been confirmed by numerous studies since that time, including a 1992 national study of mine reported in The Public Interest and a 1995 national study published by the RAND Corporation.

Moreover, if segregation is not the main cause of the achievement gap, there is no reason to expect that desegregation will close or reduce the gap. One of the best illustrations of this fact is found in the four school districts serving Wilmington-New Castle County, Del., where both city and suburban schools have been well-integrated since 1976. The black-white achievement gap in these systems, which is comparable to the national gap, has remained constant for the past 10 years despite having some of the most racially balanced schools in the nation. This finding, too, has been confirmed in national studies.

Aside from the effects of desegregation alone, some might expect greater achievement gains from specific improvements in educational programs, such as the incomparable enhancements in Kansas City. Yet Kansas City's black achievement has not improved appreciably, prompting the Harvard University desegregation expert Gary Orfield, a supporter of the original court order, to conclude that "the many millions spent have yielded little conclusive evidence that achievement has improved any more than a modest degree."

In short, the Kansas City district court and many civil-rights groups have adopted the wrong model about the causes of the achievement gap--a model that places too much emphasis on school segregation and not enough on socioeconomic and family forces that are beyond the control of school boards. The Supreme Court has now largely rejected this model, and in so doing eliminates much confusion that has existed since the original Brown decision.

This fallacious model of academic achievement grows out of what I call the "harm and benefit" thesis, which originated in the social sciences but was given prominence in the 1954 Brown decision. Its conclusion that "to separate [black children] from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely to ever be undone," which was "amply supported by modern authority," has been widely interpreted as the cornerstone of Brown. From this viewpoint, it is not such a stretch to argue that, ultimately, desegregation should be judged by its effectiveness in raising black academic performance, since it was segregation that created the achievement gap in the first place.

But this is not what most legal scholars believe to be the essential doctrine of Brown, which is, rather, summarized by another classic statement, that "separate educational facilities are inherently unequal." If public facilities segregated by law are inherently unequal, then they violate the U.S. Constitution's equal-protection clause without any proof of particular harms--which is why Brown was also used to integrate transportation, restaurants, parks, etc., without any social-science demonstration of harmful effects.

Moreover, during the 20 years following Brown, desegregation remedies were designed to guarantee equal opportunity for all educational facilities and programs, rather than dictate any particular type of facility or program. In 1976, the Supreme Court did approve compensatory programs for black students as part of a desegregation plan for Detroit (in Milliken II), but there was no hint that test scores would be used to evaluate this remedy. There has been a steady escalation in demands for educational remedies since Milliken II, and the achievement-gap issue has arisen in desegregation cases all over the country, including Hartford; Yonkers, N.Y.; San Jose, Calif.; Dallas; Wilmington, Del.; and Minneapolis, to name just a few. The Kansas City and St. Louis decisions are simply the most extreme examples of this escalation.

Fortunately, the Supreme Court has now placed limits on Milliken II remedies, stating that they must be subjected to the same standard as the conventional remedies for student assignment (busing) or the assignment of faculty and staff. That is, educational programs must be designed to redress only that portion of educational deficiencies shown to be caused by the original de jure segregation, thereby restoring programs to what they would have been in the absence of segregation. In the case of academic achievement, this means determining the incremental effect that de jure segregation had on the achievement gap, above and beyond well-established socioeconomic effects. This will be a very complex--and contentious--undertaking.

More specifically, the Supreme Court offered the following guidance regarding remedies to improve the quality of educational programs:

(1) Perhaps because of the enormous difficulty in establishing the incremental effect of de jure segregation on test scores, "the district court should sharply limit, if not dispense with," reliance on test scores and the black-white gap.

(2) Any attempt to specify that portion of the achievement gap due to segregated schools must take into account "numerous external factors beyond the control" of the school district, whose effects must not enter into the remedial formula. At a minimum, this would require assessing the contribution of socioeconomic factors.

(3) The district court should recognize that many of its quality education goals have already been attained, and that Kansas City has programs unmatched by any other public school system. The implication is that since the district court itself fashioned and approved remedies that were supposed to correct the education deficiencies, it cannot now say, because of test scores, its own remedies were wrong and new programs must be added or old ones extended.

(4) Students from kindergarten to grade 7 have been exposed to these remedies and enhanced programs for all of their school years, and older students have benefited from these programs for up to seven years. The implication is that the direct harmful effects of a former de jure segregated school system should end whenever the students last exposed to that system have graduated. Special educational remedies should not be required for students who were never exposed to the original de jure school system, since their condition lacks a clear causal nexus to the constitutional violation.

The Supreme Court has sent the Kansas City case back to the district court for further hearings in light of this new opinion. Reliance on the harm-and-benefit thesis has been severely challenged by this decision. While a district court can still find that segregation has led to educational deficiencies and can order programmatic remedies, the standards for evaluating the effectiveness of those remedies cannot rely simply on an achievement gap between black students and national norms. By acknowledging that academic achievement has many causes, most of which are beyond the control of a school system, courts should no longer be able to hold school systems or state governments hostage to the elusive goal of closing the achievement gap.

Beyond the specific issue of the achievement gap, the Court also seems to be saying that, rather than finding more reasons to extend and expand court-ordered desegregation remedies, it is time to close this and other similar school-busing cases and return control of public schools to state and local governments.

Vol. 14, Issue 41, Pages 57, 68

Published in Print: August 2, 1995, as Can Desegregation Alone Close the Achievement Gap?
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